Preventing future presidents Nixon and Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

In my sixty-one years I have watched two disastrous presidencies implode. Nixon’s ended in an abrupt resignation following the Watergate scandal. Trump’s implosion is currently underway. It’s unclear how it’s going to end, but I’m reasonably confident he won’t survive a first term. It’s also unclear if our nation will too, at least in its form where branches of government keep a check on each other, which is already not happening.

Both Nixon’s and Trump’s presidencies qualify as national crises. Over the decades too much power has shifted toward the Executive and Congress has largely failed in its role to check the Executive’s power. Moreover, because the presidency has become so powerful, it attracts people drawn to power including people who should really not be president. Trump is the obvious poster child.

Given that about forty years spanned Nixon and Trump, it’s not too hard to predict that if nothing changes we’ll endure another disastrous presidency within a few decades.

One way of checking executive power has already been enacted: we passed the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to no more than two terms. Unfortunately, eight years gives presidents plenty of time to muck of the mechanics of government.

Time is revealing some flaws in our constitutional system. How do we fix things? These suggestions range from the idealistic and unlikely to the practical. They don’t necessarily guarantee another Nixon or Trump but make them less likely. Of course I am hardly the first one to suggest some of these solutions.

Elect a national attorney general. Many states do this already. It allows the people to decide who should impartially administer our laws. Being a constitutional office, this person could not be fired by the president but would take an oath to impartially administer the laws of the United States and would be in charge of managing the Justice Department. Because presidential election years are too consequential, I propose we elect an attorney general during midterm election years. The term would be for four years. Nixon and Trump demonstrate that you can’t count on a president to ensure that justice is fairly administered, particularly when the Justice Department has to look into the executive branch. The executive needs its hands constitutionally tied from managing the impartial administration of justice.

Get rid of the Electoral College. Presidents should be elected based on the popular vote. Of course, twice recently it didn’t happen. Had Al Gore and Hillary Clinton (who won the popular votes) become president, it’s unlikely that we would have invaded Iraq or had to worry about a lawless chief executive. Obviously a constitutional amendment is a steep climb given that it’s not in red states’ interests. Still, initiatives like the National Popular Vote would guarantee electoral votes to the popular vote winner nationwide by committing a state to assign all its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. These state laws are written to take effect only when enough states that comprise a majority of the electoral votes pass state laws. 12 states are currently onboard representing 172 electoral votes. We need states comprising 98 more electoral votes to make this a reality. No, it’s not unconstitutional because the constitution empowers states on how they wish to apportion their Electoral College votes. Most states have a winner take all system.

Require presidential candidates release their tax returns to get on the ballot. The constitutionality of some proposed state efforts has been questioned, which is probably while this has been introduced in a few state legislatures it hasn’t passed in any. However, Congress could pass such a law with no issues. Obviously, this has been a problem with Trump, who still claims the IRS is auditing his returns, which is false. Even if it were true, there is no law prohibiting a candidate from releasing his tax returns while being under audit.

Split the presidency into two positions: head of state and chief executive. Arguably the U.S. president has too much power, as he/she is both the head of state and the chief executive. As a practical matter, doing both competently is virtually impossible. Most other democracies split these duties. For example, Israel elects a president that represents the nation but has few powers, but can speak for the nation. Its prime minister is the chief executive. Great Britain has the Queen as its head of state. Presidents tend to be politicians, not statesmen. We need both, not one or the other. The head of state should be the moral voice of the country. They too could be elected in “off” years.

Decentralize first-use of nuclear weapons. It’s quite frightening that Donald Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons against any country he wants at any time, given his impulsive nature documented in Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear. In general, this is a dangerous power with massive implications for the nation. Congress should pass a law that prohibits the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States without the consent of Congress. Since such a decision might clue in potential adversaries, such a decision should require agreement by the president, Speaker of the House and both the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.

Reinstate the full Voting Rights Act. We need a law that explicitly overturns Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The case removed constrains on certain mostly southern states with a history of suppressing minority votes from enacting voter laws without a preclearance from the Justice Department. If we want to be non-discriminatory, make all states get preclearances. When a day after this decision, Alabama passed a Voter ID law you know this will be a problem for the foreseeable future.

Obviously I am against political or racial gerrymandering. I would like to see federal voting districts drawn impartially by federal judges, as is true in most republican forms of government. This effects the composition of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, so it’s off topic here. It has no effect on the national popular vote for president.

It’s crazy not to be scared by a President Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

During the 1972 Democratic primaries, Senator Edmund Muskie (ME) was caught crying on camera at a news conference outside the offices of the Manchester Union-Leader. Muskie said it was just snow melting on his face, but he was heatedly responding to reports that his wife was addicted to a drug. It was enough to kill his campaign. His primary competitor, Senator George McGovern (SD) eventually won the nomination, but McGovern’s eventual choice of vice president Thomas Eagleton was later pulled from the ticket. Eagleton had a past episode of clinical depression. At the time this was considered disqualifying.

Forty-four years later we elected Donald Trump as our next president. It’s abundantly clear that Trump has mental issues of his own, most prominently his supersize case of narcissism. Rather than being disqualifying, it was a feature of his campaign. Wikipedia defines narcissistic personality disorder as:

A long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others’ feelings. People affected by it often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or about their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behavior typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of situations.

You don’t have to be psychologist to see Trump’s evident narcissism. There is evidence every day in his Twitter feed. He’s a man so vain he attacks Meryl Streep for criticizing him at the recent Golden Globe awards. He told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd:

“I win, Maureen, I always win. Knock on wood. I win. It’s what I do. I beat people. I win.”

Trump obviously does not always win. He overleveraged himself with failed businesses in Atlantic City and elsewhere. His Trump shuttle between New York and Washington was taken over by creditors. He’s lost lots of lawsuits and most recently settled the Trump University class action lawsuit for millions of dollars. And yet he cannot acknowledge any of these many failures, matters of simple public record.

In ten days the American people are going to give this man the authority to use our nuclear weapons.

It’s thinking about this that makes my head hurt so much that simply to maintain my own sanity I have at times turned off my brain. I’ve avoided the typical ways people deal with stuff like this: booze and drugs, but I can certainly understand why a sane person would. At times I’ve avoided the news and deliberately sought out distractions. Most recently I’ve been playing a lot of online crossword puzzles.

If you are sane, you should absolutely be scared about a Trump presidency. Trump is super easy to read so it’s not hard to figure out how he’s going to behave and govern. He’s not going to reinvent himself. He will continue to lash out at critics over Twitter, but most likely he will use the levers of power to bully them too, perhaps tapping their phones, examining their computers and surreptitiously putting out dirt on them. He’s a natural fascist. He’s picked a cabinet of tone deaf bullies because he wants to change things, the same way a bull in a china shop will change things. As horrifying and illegal as these actions will be though, what keeps my heart skipping beats is his role as commander in chief.

Trump simply does not understand the complexity of our foreign policy challenges. When they occur rather than use back channels he will be inclined to go postal. Imagine what he would do if China closed off the China Sea to U.S. vessels, or if North Korea attacked South Korea, or sent an ICBM at Guam. Trump will go grand and he will go aggressive. He’d have the navy on the sea-lanes shooting at Chinese warships and aircraft. He might nuke North Korea. This is because he is a narcissist. When someone challenges your authority, you go grand. In the past this meant filing lots of lawsuits. In the future, this means using our military to maximum effect and quickly to prove you are serious.

Remember what his solution to ISIS was? “Bomb the shit out of them!” This got him great applause but it won’t solve the problem of ISIS anymore than Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia did much to slow the Vietcong. Dealing with ISIS is a multifaceted problem, but it’s much more a war of minds. Bombing the shit out of ISIS may cause lots of death and destruction, but it won’t change minds, only steel the resolve of those aligned with ISIS.

Trump is quite binary. If you suck up to him, he likes you. If you oppose him, he’s your eternal enemy and he will use whatever power he has to mow you down. He can’t deal with nuance or complexity. He is full of impatience and an “ends justify the means” sort of guy, typical of a narcissist. And he will never, ever admit a mistake.

One of these days he’s going to figure out that Vladimir Putin is playing him. Okay, maybe not. He may not be that self-aware. Right now he admires Putin, which is unsurprising as he and Republicans in general are drawn to strong people and really don’t care about our democracy. Putin though has an agenda and it’s likely he’s going to play Trump like a fine fiddle. Putin wants to restore Russia’s former glory. It’s not too hard to see how he can do this at some point: reoccupy most of Eastern Europe that the USSR used to control. I would not be surprised to see Putin send in the army to wholly occupy Ukraine. But why stop there? Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are so close too. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all used to be part of their empire. If any of these scenarios happen they are likely to catch Trump flatfooted. In fact they will be tacitly abetted by Trump, who sees NATO as obsolete. Maybe Trump would even approve.

But something will trip him up and Trump will go big because big and grandiose is how he operates. When he gets tangled in the invariable complexity of it all, he’s not going to be able to think out realistic options or realize he won’t be able to get his way. This is likely to lead to huge anger and a desire to hit his enemies with everything we’ve got. That won’t work either, but it will temporarily assuage his feelings.

If any president were likely to use our nuclear forces proactively, it would be Trump. And if he does it won’t be hard for other nuclear powers, principally Russia and China, to respond in kind. The point of diplomacy and foreign policy is to leverage power without resorting to extraordinary means. That’s not going to happen in a Trump Administration.

It’s entirely rational for rational Americans to be scared as shit by a Trump presidency. I sure am. If you are not, you are in denial.

God bless America, because Trump sure won’t.